The earliest evidence for portraiture at the court of Henry VII

Frederick Hepburn, Independent Scholar

Making Art in Tudor Britain
Abstract of a paper presented at Tudor and Jacobean Painting: Production, Influences and Patronage
Funded by the British Academy and The Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art

Following the opinion expressed by Sir Roy Strong in his Tudor and Jacobean Portraits (1969), the standard portrait types of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York (both known through a number of examples) are usually regarded as having originated fairly late in the king’s reign, c.1500. However, the evidence on which Strong based his view is not entirely compelling: Henry’s apparent age may well allow him to have been younger than the 43 years required by a date of 1500; and the style of Elizabeth’s ‘gable’ headdress is in fact found in monumental brasses of English ladies from c.1490 onwards. In this paper Strong’s view is further questioned in relation to some evidence which suggests that a portrait painter may have been working at the Tudor court in the late 1480s.

We know from a letter written in July 1488 to Ferdinand and Isabella, the ‘Catholic Kings’ of Spain, by their ambassador in England, Roderigo Gonzalva de Puebla, that the writer and his colleague Juan de Sepúlveda had recently been taken to see the infant Prince Arthur, son of Henry and Elizabeth (the purpose of the ambassadors’ presence in England was to negotiate an alliance which would in due course be sealed by the marriage of Arthur to the Spanish princess Katherine of Aragon). Arthur was evidently an impressively healthy-looking baby, and ‘as King Henry was aware of this, he wished that De Sepúlveda should take the prince’s figure, image and appearance to Spain’.

Despite the fact that there is no mention of any portrait of Arthur being taken to Spain with the English embassy which set off, along with De Puebla and De Sepúlveda, later that year and arrived at the Spanish court at Medina del Campo in March 1489, we learn from the accounts of Gonzalo de Baeza, the Spanish royal treasurer, that an artist called Antonio, ‘the English painter’ (pintor Ynglés), began to receive a monthly salary from March 1489 onwards. The coincidence of the dates makes it difficult not to think that this painter had come with the English embassy.

In the same accounts, in an entry dated September 1489, Antonio is described as being supplied with fine linen canvas (holanda) on which to paint portraits of the Spanish royal children. Presumably, in order to receive a commission like this, he would have needed to demonstrate in advance that he had some competence as a portrait painter. Can we suppose that his expertise might initially have been shown in a portrait of Prince Arthur, brought from England?

In answer to this question, two points can be made:

First, although Arthur was only just over two years old when the English embassy left for Spain at the end of 1488, evidence from elsewhere shows that portraits of such young children were indeed painted at this time. An example is provided by the existing portrait of the Dauphin Charles-Orland, son of Charles VIII of France, painted by Jean Hey in 1494 (Louvre, Paris): the inscribed frame gives the sitter’s age as 26 months.

Secondly, from Queen Isabella’s chamber accounts we learn that, in March 1499, among the items which were received into the palace in Madrid after accompanying the queen on her travels were:

  • ‘a further small picture which they say is of the prince of England’, and
  • ‘a square box … in which there are four paintings on canvas; three of these are the king and queen of England and their son’.

At this date and in this context, the ‘prince of England’ can only have been Prince Arthur, and it looks as though Queen Isabella had two pictures of him. This is confirmed by a list in another chamber account, made in 1500:

  • ‘another small panel … on which is painted the prince of England’
  • ‘and another on canvas of the same person’.

(It is not surprising to find two portraits of Arthur recorded in Isabella’s ownership: the negotiations for his marriage with Katherine of Aragon lasted for some 12 years, during which his appearance naturally changed as he grew up.)

It is very possible that one of these portraits was of the type exemplified by a small panel now at Hever Castle, showing Arthur probably at the time of the betrothal ceremony which was held in 1497. Of the other portrait it is impossible to say anything with certainty. Frustratingly, there appear to be no references to pictures in any of Isabella’s earlier household documents. Clearly, however, the possibility is there that the three recorded portraits on canvas, of Henry, Elizabeth and Arthur, arrived in Spain together and were the work of Antonio.

A final, separate piece of evidence is provided by a miniature scene painted in a manuscript (BL Arundel MS 66, fol. 201). The scene shows the book being presented to Henry VII, whose face is recognizably a portrait likeness. The manuscript, made almost certainly in London, is dated 30 June 1490, and this shows that at around that time an artist who was capable of producing portrait likenesses was working within the orbit of the English court.

Two footnotes:

  • It has been suggested that the portraits of Ferdinand and Isabella which still exist at Windsor Castle may be Antonio’s work. This is certainly possible (good portrait painters were evidently rare in Spain in the late 1480s/early ‘90s) and it would be interesting know more about the condition and date of these portraits.
  • An interesting parallel to the case of Antonio is provided by the records in the accounts of the Lord High Treasurer of Scotland relating to an artist called ‘Mynour’, who took portraits of Henry VII, Elizabeth of York, Princess Margaret and Prince Henry to the Scottish court in 1502 and was, like Antonio before him, poached by the host court. ‘Mynour’ was certainly a Netherlander, as also probably was ‘Antonio’ (Anthonis?).